Don’t fear the fat

For years the thinking has been simple for cyclists: more carbs, less fat. It’s time to redress the balance

A glance at the bars and gels on offer in any bike shop gives a very clear idea of the nutritional priorities recommended for cyclists. Want more energy? You need carbohydrates. Want to recover and build muscle? Gulp down some protein. But fat? That just clogs your arteries and raises your cholesterol, leading to an early grave. There’s no way you want fats. Fat makes you fat, right?

But there’s a nutritional sea change happening and fats are ready to cast off their bad-boy image. The once beatified carbs are now dancing with the devil. Before the Olympics, Mark Cavendish cut sugar from his diet to shed kilos; Bradley Wiggins has stopped having sugar in coffee in a similar quest. Yes, sugar is the new Lance Armstrong, while fats are David Millar, atoning for past misdemeanors by showing a worthy side.

‘This sounds simplistic but, essentially, there are two classes of fats: good and bad,’ says nutritionist Lucy-Ann Prideaux, who has worked with many elite and recreational cyclists. ‘Natural fats can play a positive role in the body; man-made fats do the opposite.’

These ‘natural fats’ are sub-divided further into saturated and unsaturated. Historically, saturated fat, found in high quantities in foods such as butter and cheese, is OK in moderation, but too much is linked with high cholesterol. Unsaturated fats are split into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. We’ll come to their pros and cons shortly but one thing’s certain: they are far better for you than man-made fats.

Man-made fats come in the form of trans fats or hydrogenated fats and are in the likes of crisps and processed foods. They’re the ones that pack the highest risk of causing heart disease come your fifties, and you won’t see these anywhere near the peloton.

‘We source much of our fats from foods that are high in protein,’ says BMC Racing’s nutritionist Judith Haudum, ‘so the team consumes a diet that’s rich in meat, fish, poultry and dairy. The emphasis is on poly and monounsaturated fatty acids, with the intake of saturated fats below 7% of total energy intake. It’s why we include a variety of plant-based foods, too, as they contain healthy fats. Lamb’s lettuce is one example.’

Role of fats

You reach for the drops and, to your horror, your belly kisses your top tube. Subcutaneous fat – the surplus around your middle, thighs and glutes – is upsetting your numbers. The extra weight will add to your climbing time, and that’s before you factor in the health and fitness penalties of having too much body fat.

But it’s not just the fats you eat that create body fat – consuming too many carbohydrates also causes you to store excess energy as fat. In fact, some argue you could live without carbohydrates altogether, obtaining the glucose you need from a process called gluconeogenesis, which generates glucose from fatty acids and lactate. You couldn’t live, however, without protein or fats.

‘Fats are vital for regeneration,’ says Prideaux. ‘In one year you have a renewed body, from bone tissue to muscle. We’re basically becoming new people on a daily basis, and you are the fat that you eat.’

No, really you are. Fats play a crucial role in forming new cells because the primary component of cell lining is fat and protein. That goes for the cells that make up your organs to the organelles within cells, which includes the energy producer known as mitochondria. Consuming better fats creates better conditions for the mitochondria to furnish your muscles with the energy you need to tame the Marmotte.

‘It’s why ingesting a lot of hard, processed foods is a bad idea,’ Prideaux says. ‘Your body can still use the fat but you end up with
rigid cells. Unlike healthy cells they’re not fluid, and this is a disaster for an athlete.’

This internal solidification is because these new blood cells can’t move through
the bloodstream efficiently, which restricts oxygen delivery to working muscles. Rigid cells also aren’t as receptive to hormones clinging onto them. So when your mind and chemical make-up is screaming at your legs to spin quicker, your rigid cells can’t hear.

Fats, of course, also taste good and satiate you because they contain more than double the calories per gram of carbs and protein. ‘We also need fats to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K,’ adds Haudum.

We need fats, but only the right kind, and there’s one branch of unsaturated fats that’s the Chris Froome of the fat world: omega-3. ‘Mountains of research states that omega-3 protects the heart, controls blood pressure and maintains a lean bodyweight,’ says Prideaux. Omega-3 also benefits blood and muscle functions by acting as a cleanser, making blood less sticky and more fluid.

‘This allows more oxygen to reach the brain and muscles, making riders faster,’ says Hannah Grant, head chef at Tinkoff-Saxo. ‘Cold pressed flaxseed oil is high in omega-3, which is why I add it to the riders’ smoothies in the morning. We make sure many of our meals contain foods high in omega-3, like chia seeds, salmon, nuts and mackerel.’

Omega-3 also displays cannibalistic tendencies: it consumes fat. According
to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, omega-3 helps break down existing fat by activating fat-burning pathways through the liver. But omega-3’s most important properties are anti-inflammatory, reducing inflammation and boosting the immune system.

This contrasts to omega-6, which is an inflammatory. ‘Omega-6, found in foods like cheese and vegetable oil, has been linked to cancers,’ says Prideaux. ‘Our ancestors had a much healthier balance of omega-3 and omega-6 because their diets – meats, fish, nuts – had omega-3 in abundance. Processed food changed all that. That said, omega-6 isn’t all bad as it’s involved in blood clotting.’

That’s why a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of between 4:1 and 1:1 is the ideal. In the US the average is currently closer to 20:1.

Percentage game

Fats clearly play a vital role in a cyclist’s diet, but how much do you need? The average person in Britain follows a macronutrient composition of 50% carbohydrates, 35% fat and 15% protein. Surprisingly, perhaps,
this figure’s not too far off the mark for professional cyclists.

‘The average fat intake of our riders is 20-35% of total energy,’ says Haudum. ‘Despite that, there are still many riders who try to limit their fat intake to less
than 20%. That’s wrong and can have health implications.’

Haudum points out that while fats are important, carbohydrates are vital for an endurance athlete, especially during heavy workload. ‘Yet there are also times when higher fat intake is appropriate, like low-intensity training during the off-season.’

It’s a salient point – macronutrient composition is affected by exercise intensity. Research suggests that when training at 50% of maximal aerobic capacity, 45-55% of energy comes from fat. This drops to about 10-30% when training at 75% of maximum and zero when you’re practically blind through exertion. As intensity increases, a greater proportion of energy comes via glucose. When you realise a 50% carb diet leaves 1,000 calories of readily available energy compared to 2,000 on a 60-70% carb diet, it’s clear why carbohydrates have their place in the peloton.

Back in 1988, researchers at Maastricht University measured the energy expenditure and intake of five Tour cyclists. Their average intake was almost 6,000 calories a day with expenditure nearly 6,100. They did a fine job of balancing their energy requirements by ingesting 49% of their calories while riding, which worked out at 94g carbs per hour.

It’s clear that during periods of high-intensity racing or training, carbs remain king – though only because the riders’ fat stores have done the donkey work for much of the six-hour ride. For many one-day Classics and stage races, long, flat stretches of road are the norm. You may only watch the famous ascents or sprint finishes but the bulk of the ride is ticked off at chatting pace, with the pros pedalling at an intensity that sees fat playing a significant, albeit understated, role in energy delivery.

Fat is so calorie dense that, with a healthy supply of oxygen, it can generate huge amounts of energy. Physiologist Allen Lim, who’s worked with a number of teams including BMC and Garmin-Sharp, states that an average Tour rider weighs 154lb (70kg). With fat containing 3,500 calories per pound in weight, a person weighing 150lbs with just 10% body fat has 15lbs of stored fat – the equivalent of 52,000 calories. It’s why even the most sinewy cyclist can spend much of a stage burning fat without detriment to their performance.

Of course, every rider is different and experience plays a determining role in
their nutritional strategy.

‘I know they’re important for racing but I don’t particularly like carbs,’ says Tinkoff-Saxo’s Nicolas Roche. ‘Last year I tried a fatty-acid regime but, sadly, it didn’t work out. Now I’m back to pasta when racing. Ultimately, everyone has a different metabolism. Someone whose is high might be able to eat more fat, or more oily stuff, than someone who has a slow metabolism.’

Still, when Tinkoff-Saxo’s Grant is preparing meals like salmon baked with ginger, honey and orange – ‘they go crazy for that one’ – maybe Roche’s diet is based on taste rather than performance.

Fat revolution

Professor Tim Noakes is one of the world’s leading exercise physiologists and wrote the acclaimed book Lore Of Running. A few years ago he read The New Atkins For A New You. He’d just turned 60, always eaten well, had run over 70 marathons but was putting on weight. The book stated he could lose 6kg in six weeks. He didn’t believe it but three colleagues lent authority to the advice
so he followed it and lost the weight.

Soon after, he discovered he had type II diabetes. ‘Basically, I realised if I ate a carbohydrate diet it would kill me,’ says Noakes, ‘so I had to eat a high-fat diet.’

Two years on Professor Noakes’ The Real Meal Revolution has caused a stir in his native South Africa, selling 40,000 copies in eight weeks. In it Noakes claims carbs are to blame for the rise in diabetes and obesity in the last 40 years. In the 1970s, US agriculture embarked on a mass production of high-fructose corn syrup, which was commonly used as a sweetener in processed foods. Within 10 years America’s calorie intake leapt from an average 3,200 per day to 3,900.

More controversial, though gaining support, are his views on statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) and their relationship with fat. ‘There’s a $45 billion industry riding on the theory that high fat raises your cholesterol. That’s what the statin industry is worth. But cholesterol is a poor predictor of heart attack risk. In fact, it’s useless. The only thing you need to worry about is the small LDL cholesterol particle, and that’s made worse by a high-carb diet and better by a high-fat diet.’

But how does a high-fat diet play out in the world of cycling, where short bursts of energy are vital? ‘There’s not the evidence yet that if you want to ride hard for a minute you shouldn’t consume a high-carb diet, but [South African swimmer] Cameron van der Burgh is on a high-fat diet and he won Olympic gold in the 100m butterfly at London in 2012. We don’t need more than 200g of carbs each day. Even the superhumans in the Tour can get that down to 300g per day. In fact, the teams are slowly doing this. Yes, they were consuming crazy amounts years ago but they’ve reduced things dramatically.’

It’s a divisive view but one supported by Prideaux, although she prefers the term low-starch over low-carbohydrate, insisting you shouldn’t banish fruit and veg from your menu unless, of course, you do suffer from type II diabetes.

Fats play a role in peak performance, as do carbs, protein and all the micronutrients, but we’re all individual and often experience is the best advice you can follow. ‘Riders know their bodies very well,’ says BMC’s Haudum. ‘Not all science works for all riders and, at the end of the day, it’s up to the rider whether he wants to try a different diet or not. The goal is to provide a healthy, well-balanced diet, whatever the macronutrient composition.’ Ultimately, no matter how healthy a diet you follow, balance is probably the name of the game.

High fat vs cycling

Joe Friel is one of the world’s leading cycling and endurance coaches. The American turned 70 last year and had always hovered around the 150lb (68kg) mark. Things changed as he approached 60: ‘It was worse during the winter – my weight would climb to the high 160s.’

Last year he tested the high-fat, low-carb diet on himself. In nine weeks Friel lost more than half a stone (3kg).

‘During rides I took in water only, unless they lasted more than four hours. Typically, though, I did intervals of various intensities, plus tempo and aerobic endurance sessions. These were all less than three hours. In the mountains of Colorado I often touched 85% intensity and there was no bonking, unusual fatigue or strange performance.’

Friel’s body had adapted. In exercise physiology terms it’s called a lowered respiratory quotient. While his performance didn’t improve, he found
it easier to hit and stay at race weight.

‘I didn’t race and it could well be that my top-end power won’t be sustainable without the carbs,’ he adds. ‘But I don’t see any downsides for steady-state events at or below lactate threshold,
like time-trialling.’

Fat facts

Hydrogenated trans fats

Found in: Margarine, processed foods (those that don’t grow on trees or in the ground, like biscuits and ready meals)

Good or bad? Hydrogenation converts liquid vegetable oils into solid or semi-solid fats. These  cling to your arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. Avoid if you’re a cyclist!

Saturated fats

Found in: Dairy products, fatty meats, coconut oil, palm oil, some biscuits and pastries, chocolate (cocoa butter)

Good or bad? OK in moderation but regular consumption can increase
‘bad’ LDL cholesterol

Monounsaturated fats

Found in: Red meat, nuts, whole milk, high-fat fruits, olive oil

Good or bad? OK in moderation – they can help reduce LDL cholesterol

Polyunstaurated fats

Found in: Nuts, seeds, fish, leafy green vegetables

Good or bad? Good in moderation – they can help protect the heart